Shang Hai
830 N. Milpas St, Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 962-7833
Hours: Lunch: Mon, Wed-Sat 11:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m., Dinner: Sun-Thu 4:30 p.m.-9:15 p.m., Fri-Sat 4:30 p.m.-9:45 p.m., Tue: Closed
Price: $10 – $20

Shang Hai isn’t easy to find. It’s tucked away on the far east side of downtown Santa Barbara under an unobtrusive sign in the back of a small and unremarkable shopping center. With the front windows covered completely with bamboo mats, Shang Hai doesn’t even look like a restaurant. Open the door, though, and there’s no mistaking it for anything but the local classic it is. With the closure of Jimmy’s Oriental Garden last year, Shang Hai became the oldest Chinese eatery in Santa Barbara, and now, 26 years later, it’s still a family business under the same owner. And that’s not their only superlative, says manager Yvette Yin, whose husband Kevin Yin owns the business and whose father Kent Ku has been the head chef since it opened.

“I think we’re the smallest, and oldest, Chinese restaurant in Santa Barbara,” Yin says. “We were the first Chinese restaurant to serve vegetarian food.”

Though the menu includes many meat dishes, Shang Hai provides an extensive list of vegetarian options, and as Yin says, it’s the vegetarian food that Shang Hai is famous for.

“Our food is not greasy at all,” Yin says. “We used to use Canola oil, but a few years ago we started using only vegetable oil.” With a clean, fresh atmosphere to match, Shang Hai makes a different breed of Chinese cuisine than, say, Panda Express. With only a few tables and no views, and situated in a corner of SB well off the beaten tourist path, the place is quiet and friendly, and repeat customers are the norm.

“We have a lot of customers that have been coming here for all 26 years,” Yin says. “Mostly locals, hardly any tourists. Because of our location, we really care about quality.”

Specifically, the restaurant sees a lot of students from the nearby high school, as well as SBCC and sometimes UCSB students. The reasonable prices and wide variety of items on the menu mean Shang Hai is a popular place for take-out customers as well.

“There’s something for everyone,” Yin says, and adds that the menu isn’t offering ‘health food,’ but authentic Chinese cuisine that is healthy by nature.

SpiritLand Bistro
230 E Victoria St
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Phone: (805) 966-7759
Hours: Wed-Thu 5:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m., Fri-Sat. 5:30 p.m. – 10:00 p.m., Sun 5:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Price: $10 – $20

On the other end of the spectrum, SpiritLand Bistro takes healthy food and locally-grown ingredients very, very seriously. The menu, described as “Organic Global Cuisine,” is a purposeful attempt to source absolutely everything as locally and organically as possible, and the staff and management go as far as to visit the farms where their ingredients are produced, says manager and UCSB alumnus Ken Morino.

“We definitely like to get to know the farmers, and we’ve been out to most of the farms we source from,” Morino says. “We’re trying to feed people the best food available. We’re kind of like showing our customers, ‘This is what Santa Barbara has to offer.'”

Owner Joann Hsian’s philosophy of sustainability pervades throughout the menu, which includes some raw food dishes, fish caught according to recommendations from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and of course, a wide variety of seasonal, heirloom and specialty vegetables that the kitchen staff can “play around with,” in Morino’s words.

“We’re actually going a little bit more seasonal, trying to get closer to our core philosophy of sustainability,” Morino says, citing the lack of pork and beef products on the menu. While there are organic duck and chicken dishes, SpiritLand won’t serve beef or pork, as those meat industries aren’t considered sustainable.

“A lot of people are really interested in the connection between what’s on the plate and where it comes from,” Morino explains. “People who are [health-] conscious can find things they don’t have to worry about. … The servers all know the menu, and we definitely don’t hesitate to spell it out to people,” he said. In fact, the menu provides tags for dishes that are gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free and egg-free. But the staff also recognizes that not everyone wants to know every detail of the dish, and promises something for everyone.

“We like to make everyone feel special,” Morino says. “If you want to go out to eat with vegan friends, no matter what your diet is you can find something here.”

SpiritLand also hosts plenty of students, both from SBCC and UCSB. “We get a fair amount of students, often on dates,” Morino says, and added that a customer can often get in and out for $25. For the frugal, Morino recommends one of the salads, which are known for their huge size.

SpiritLand, now almost six years old, has also started to make a name for itself as a knowledgeable spot for wine, and hosts monthly four-course dinner and wine tasting events in which participants are encouraged to bring their own bottles. However, Morino insists a great meal can be had at SpiritLand without a drop of alcohol.

“We’re pretty picky,” he says, so selective eaters, slow-food gourmets and those with voluntary or involuntary dietary restrictions should take note.

Blue Agave
20 East Cota Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93101-1617
Phone: (805) 899-4694
Hours: Mon-Sun 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m., light menu until 11:30 p.m.
Price: $10 – $20

Blue Agave might seem like a restaurant in the vein of SpiritLand Bistro, as it focuses heavily on organic, whole foods and describes its menu as “Intercontinental Eclectic.” But go inside, and the restaurant dedicates itself heart and soul to tequila and offers much more of a bar feel than the intimate SpiritLand Bistro and the tiny Shang Hai.

The restaurant has two stories, with tables and a bar downstairs and cozy booths, sofas, a fireplace and a smoking balcony above. To complete the mood, cigars are available for sale. Sustainable Seafood Program-certified fish, as well as beef, pork and other red meats are noticeably present, including several choices of hamburger.

“I think we’re the only place in town [where] you can get a lamb burger,” Manager Karina Line says. The menu also includes a filet mignon, and Line insists the place is famous for the mole enchiladas with free range chicken. But Blue Agave is no steakhouse, she says.

“We have plenty of vegetarian options, and we’re able to work with all kinds of dietary needs, gluten-free, et cetera,” Line says. “We get absolutely everything we can locally and organically, and that goes all the way to the bar.” Some tequilas are certified organic, and the bar uses no syrups in its cocktails. Besides the tequila and specialty creations like a seasonal blood-orange margarita, Blue Agave carries a large selection of Scotch and California wines.

As for the ambiance, Blue Agave offers the best of both worlds: an intimate setting for dinner and drinks, and a rowdier late-night vibe, where even the recently legalized spirit absinthe is served.

“We do get a little crazy on the weekends,” Line admits. “A lot of people say it’s the most European-feeling place in Santa Barbara,” thanks to the influence of German-born owner Gabi Barysch-Crosbie. The tapas and bar menus are available until 11:30 p.m., making it one of the few places for late-night snacks in downtown SB. They do, however, start taking IDs at the door after 10 o’clock.

“The comfortable ambiance is a big draw,” Line says. “We like to think of it as classy casual.” Both customers and staff mentioned the varied crowd; students, professionals, tourists from all over the world and even some major celebrities have been seen there.

“It’s a great place to meet other people, network,” Line says. “We get lots of theater people, musicians, music industry people. It’s really a great cross-section of creative Santa Barbara.”

Blue Agave hosts acoustic shows, community events and a monthly brunch, and posts details on its Web site and Facebook page. But Line says the restaurant gets most of its business through word-of-mouth, and only started advertising a year ago.

“A lot of the people we get here come on a friend’s recommendation,” she said with a smile